For decades, the women rescued from the hotel rooms and apartments in Fresno where they had been raped, beaten and forced to have sex with strangers for money had few alternatives.
The first – and it was seldom optional – was jail. They could also go to rehab, provided they had a drug problem. But more often than not, they returned to the sex trade.
That is no longer the case.
In 2012, human trafficking became a crime in California, carrying with it new language for dealing with the crime and harsher penalties for traffickers. Local law enforcement found success against traffickers by treating girls and women in the sex trade as victims, not complicit criminals.
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Over the past few years, a growing network of advocates has added new avenues of help for the hundreds of women who are trafficked. These groups have provided victims with shelter, counseling and the tools to rebuild their lives.
Many who work with human trafficking victims consider the practice to be modern-day slavery. If that’s true, this advocacy coalition is the underground railroad.
The coalition’s complex network moves human trafficking victims among secret locations throughout the city and into neighboring counties.
You probably won’t ever see them in action, even though they are on call 24/7. Their campuses and shelters are hidden in plain sight. Magnetic locks and around-the-clock surveillance cameras secure their offices, which often wind into other buildings. They use post office mailboxes and scramble their outgoing calls to keep their direct phone numbers hidden. They do this so traffickers cannot try to grab victims and take them back to the sex trade – or kill them to keep them from testifying in court.
A safe house
Debra Rush is the founder of one such group, Breaking the Chains. The nonprofit opened the central San Joaquin Valley’s first adult safe house for trafficked women in 2014. The staff also offers 17 different courses designed to rebuild self-esteem, teach students how to avoid dangerous situations and more.
There are about two dozen women and girls now in this program. Most are there because they choose to be, but some are working through the program as part of a court order.
Rush said the organization’s secretive measures are needed to maintain the privacy of the victims and also for their safety, as some are witnesses in state or federal trafficking cases and require protection. Violent traffickers facing lengthy prison sentences are sometimes willing to go to extreme lengths to keep their victims quiet.
When they’re coming after these girls, it’s actually more deadly than just thinking they’re property.
Breaking the Chains founder Debra Rush
“Do (traffickers) think that they’re property? Yes,” Rush said. “But they’re not coming after them because they’re property … They’re coming after them to avoid a life sentence. When they’re coming after these girls, it’s actually more deadly than just thinking they’re property.”
Rush has an insider’s perspective because she was “literally born into trafficking,” as she puts it. Her mother was first trafficked in Fresno in the 1960s and remained in the sex trade until her death a few years ago. When she was a teenager, Rush was sold to a pimp and forced into prostitution.
She escaped but eventually fell back into the sex trade as an adult before being rescued again in 1999. It’s common for those who escape trafficking to return to it, she said, because just removing someone from that world isn’t enough to fully rehabilitate them. She stressed the importance of breaking down the barriers that trafficking victims create around the various traumas they face – rape, assault, incarceration – in order to truly heal them.
“There’s a root cause or a catalyst that has thrust you there,” Rush said. “If I don’t pull that root out, I’ve simply cut the plant, and it’s going to grow back.”
Traffickers often prey on women who have been abused as children, have a history of poverty, deal with low self-esteem or suffer from mental illness, Rush said. These “roots” must also be dealt with in order for a woman to recover.
In 2008, Rush realized she needed professional help to keep her from returning to the streets. She found there weren’t many options specific to what she had been through. After she finished college, she returned to the human trafficking world to help others.
But recovery is often never total, as the victims’ trauma can linger for years. Rush, who is a mother of seven and recently married a pastor, has been out of the sex trade more than a decade.
And yet, she still struggles at times with self-doubt and low self-esteem.
“It’s still hard for me to believe” that a pastor would marry her, she said, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s still difficult for me, right? And there’s still mornings when I have to remind myself of who I am now.”
Rush believes that, except for a sociopath, no woman is capable of selling her body without being traumatized.
That girl in high school or college will become that crackhead on Parkway Drive, talking to herself, pushing something down the street, turning tricks for $5. That’s the extreme. That’s where my mother was. ... That’s what happens unless something knocks them off that trajectory.
Breaking the Chains founder Debra Rush
And that includes women who work as escorts or in brothels, she says. Unless they go through a program, those women will end up on the street one day. The same is true, she added, for women who engage in sex work to pay for college.
“That girl in high school or college will become that crackhead on Parkway Drive, talking to herself, pushing something down the street, turning tricks for $5,” she said. “That’s the extreme. That’s where my mother was, and there’s no other off-ramp. Death, prison and that. That’s what happens unless something knocks them off that trajectory.”
First response for victims
The Valley’s advocacy network also includes the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, which has assumed the role of primary advocate for victims. The agency has had contact with 541 victims in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010 – including 185 children.
Melissa Gomez is the manager of the Fresno EOC’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking project, which assists victims in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. If a law enforcement agency raids a local massage parlor, the odds are good that Gomez or one of her employees will be responsible for helping the victims after their trafficker is arrested.
Gomez and her small team – one full-time case manager, a few part-time employees and a handful of advocates from other agencies funded by the EOC – manage hundreds of cases. The primary goal is to provide victims with whatever services they need, be it a meal, a place to sleep for the night, legal help or entry into a full-on recovery program like the one run by Breaking the Chains.
Since 2010, the EOC’s trafficking project has connected 212 victims with legal assistance. Nearly 60 victims have received shelter through the EOC, and more than 12,000 meals have been provided. Over the years, domestic violence advocates and shelters such as the Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno have become increasingly aware of the issue and also have offered assistance.
541The number of human trafficking victims identified by the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission since 2010.
Once a victim agrees to accept help, Gomez works with various advocacy groups to provide it. It often takes years of therapy and counseling to heal those who were trafficked, but Gomez said her team is committed to seeing everyone through the process. They stay in touch with clients for years.
But Gomez and her partners are already stretched thin. State funding in the form of a $1 million grant from a California Office of Emergency Services’ pilot program will end in March. The EOC was one of 10 agencies to receive a share of $10 million budgeted by the state, but Gomez said only $5 million was allocated in the latest state budget. It’s not clear if the EOC will receive less money or will have to bid against other agencies for the reduced awards – which could leave the nonprofit without the money it needs to pay its entire full-time staff.
Gomez credits the Fresno Police Department and Fresno County District Attorney’s Office for subsidizing her costs, but the EOC project may soon need new funding to keep its current services going – let alone expand them.
And the services definitely need expanding.
Gomez believes the project in the past seven years has only begun to address the problem. As victims learn that police will not arrest them and that advocacy services are available, more and more will reach out.
The number of new victims is also increasing as the rise of social media has given traffickers a potential avenue into nearly every home in America. A lot of these cases go unreported, so the exact scale of the growth is unknown.
Human trafficking cases are particularly time-consuming, Gomez said, as the physical and emotional abuse inflicted on victims makes them slow to trust others or realize they are in need of help. It’s not uncommon for an advocate to contact the same victim 10 to 16 times before she accepts help.
Gomez said there’s also a high turnover rate for advocates, given the intense nature of their work.
“It’s important to practice good self-care, or we will burn out,” Gomez said. “The stories we hear from people – it’s impossible not to lose some sleep some nights.”
She also stressed the importance of preventing trafficking in the first place by talking to children in a frank manner.
“I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old,” Gomez said. “Obviously, I keep some things from them because of how old they are. But I do talk to them about these things.”
Other network connections
Prevention is the primary focus of the Central Valley Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on mobilizing Fresno’s faith-based communities to combat human trafficking.
The coalition offers courses designed to teach people how to recognize the signs of human trafficking and to stop it. Each three-hour class is offered several times a year.
Advocates also speak to teenage girls in high schools and youth groups, telling them how to resist traffickers, executive director Ryan Townsend said. The group is working on a pilot program that will speak to young boys, focusing on keeping them from being victimized or from becoming traffickers. It is scheduled to begin next year at Fowler High School.
It’s not uncommon for an advocate to contact the same victim 10 to 16 times before she accepts help.
Smaller groups of volunteers and ministries have gathered to help where they can. Ana Lopez, herself a victim of sexual violence, recently started a new ministry, Beauty for Ashes, which hosts monthly events in which trafficking victims can get a makeover, their nails done and a new outfit for free. The events are designed to help rebuild the women’s self-esteem.
Lopez and her team of volunteers also walk the streets monthly to give gifts to trafficking victims, pray with them and offer help.
Like many of his partners, Townsend stresses the need for more funds, awareness and education to combat human trafficking.
“It’s going to take for-profit businesses, churches, faith groups, schools, civil services, police – basically everyone working together to stop this,” he said.
To get help or help others:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
This number can be used to report anyone in need of assistance and does not require the caller to contact law enforcement.
To fight trafficking:
Editor’s note: Human trafficking is a widespread concern that advocates and law enforcement officials say is on the rise throughout Fresno – north, south, east and west. The Fresno Bee has taken an in-depth look inside the world of the sex trade and its victims. Over a series of stories this fall, The Bee is reporting on what is being done to help victims, target traffickers and prevent others from being trapped.